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How to Help Your Small-Business Employees Become the Best

Most small businesses have problems finding, hiring and keeping the best employees. Many small enterprises don't have the budget to pay the higher wages or provide the benefits that attract the most capable and dependable people. But another factor might be a lack of understanding of what type of employee would best fit a particular position. It's also possible that a business owner has not yet developed a style of management that encourages existing employees to become better at their jobs.

Before you hire new employees, create a list of all the characteristics that would make up an ideal candidate for the position you need to fill. Of course, the "ideal" is not available because there is no such person. But your list simply serves as a tool to allow you to better screen applicants. More important, it will help you think of ways to create the sort of environment that would make your reasonably good employee better--maybe even exceptional. Your own managing style and the environment you provide can help develop these traits when the potential is there.

The following are some traits that a majority of business owners and managers might consider ideal by general standards. Naturally some will be more important to you than others, and certain positions will require additional qualities that are not listed here. But it's a good place to start.


A truly ideal employee would show up on time, every day, without ever calling in sick or having problems at home. Obviously this is never going to happen unless you hire a robot. No employee will ever be completely illness-free or have illness-free children. No one will have a problem-free life. So what would be more realistic? Truly reliable employees will have the foresight to know how to respond to problems not just on the job but in their own lives. They expect problems to occur and they have the resources and coping skills in place to deal with them, both on and off the job.

How can you encourage greater reliability in your employees? One way is through honest communication. If you see a bright and otherwise dependable employee coming in late time after time, have a serious discussion to determine whether there are ways to accommodate this worker's schedule before the tardy incidents add up enough to cause termination. Then you might want to reconsider your scheduling rules for all your employees. As long as they get the job done, does it matter if they start at 8:00 or 8:30? Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn't. Reliability can be encouraged in part by the owner's willingness to make reasonable compromises.

Problem-Solving Ability

Most employers would say their ideal employees should be problem-solvers even if the job does not otherwise require a high level of skill. If you are a great problem solver yourself, you will be able to coach your employees on all the expected issues that come through your business during working hours. To help your employee respond to frequent problems in a reliable way, give them the necessary tools and instructions. If a piece of equipment fails because of a certain action, or if there is a clear cause and effect going on, write up the solution as a procedure. Make copies and post them in visible areas.

If you need your employee to respond more reliably to unexpected problems, give them a chance to rehearse various scenarios. Then document their options in writing so they can be referred to as needed. Often difficulty dealing with new problems is a lack of training or experience or both.

Customer Service Mindset

Most business people understand the relationship between happy, grateful customers and strong profits. Employees who have contact with customers need to also make this connection. Ideal employees continue to treat the customer with courtesy even when the customer does not return the favor. An irate customer showing up one day to make everyone within earshot miserable is always a possibility. However, the ideal employee can deal with this customer, disarming them with sincere efforts to make things right. If the customer is truly impossible to satisfy and determined to stay angry at all costs, at least everyone in the business can rest assured it was not their fault.

How can you make certain your employees will keep their cool when customers can't? Again, good training is the answer. It doesn't have to be formal, but it needs to be deliberate. So much communication in a busy enterprise is done on the run, in a casual way, which can be easily forgotten. Take the time to gain attention and make your message clear. Better yet, put your customer service policy in writing. If difficulties are frequent, take the time to run through possible scenarios with your employees so they can be better prepared to deal with stressful situations. A calm, understanding, supportive boss is often the best role model for employees who feel harassed or pressured by customer service glitches.


The ideal employee does not need to be constantly pushed, prodded, coaxed, threatened, persuaded, manipulated or nagged to do their work. The best employee wants to work productively and efficiently to get the job done. This gem of a worker is motivated by the satisfaction of a job well done regardless of pay. Some employees are actually like this while many are not quite so ideal. But no one can maintain or acquire this attitude under constant pressure or micromanaging.

To help your employees improve self-motivation and productivity, incentive programs or commissions that reward jobs well done might be helpful. But don't overlook the possibility that your staff does not know how to be productive because your goals were never explained clearly enough. Or perhaps the production systems are outdated, problem-riddled and slow. Before you write someone off as non-motivated, make sure they know what is expected and how to meet those expectations.

Willingness to Learn

The ideal employee is willing to learn new things. Not everyone is a great learner. Not everyone is a fast learner. But ideal employees don't resist when asked to learn something they have never done before. Even if naturally timid and afraid of looking stupid, they will find a way to learn because they possess the desire to improve themselves.

It is up to the business management to provide an environment where learning can take place and is encouraged and supported. Don't write off your employees until you have created such an environment. Then you will know who has potential to grow and who doesn't.


The ideal employee is adaptable. If they get a new boss, they can work with him or her as well as with the old one. If they get a new assistant, they are welcoming rather than hostile. If they need to move to a different office, they are happy to have a change. They like the challenge of learning new methods, new technology, and new ways to do their work. Most employees do not reach this ideal because, being human, they get accustomed to the way things are and want them to stay that way because it makes life easier. Even so, you can look for signs of adaptability in new hires. Then encourage and reward it in all your staff.


Ideal employees are discreet when you want them to be. They don't blurt out their feelings at every meeting. They don't offend their coworkers with blunt comments. They are tactful and courteous. But they are also honest. They don't steal inventory. They don't embezzle money. They can be trusted with cash, jewelry, cars, keys, trade secrets, confidential information, secret formulas, account numbers, social security numbers, and medical histories. They can sign checks all day long and never write one out to their own "company."

If you are a business owner who likes dealing with honest people, then your ideal employee would be someone you can trust without reserve. Since this is an ideal, it would of course be dangerous to assume all of your employees have this trait. It is even unwise to assume an honest employee will remain so forever. Nonetheless, while security systems and double checks-and-balances remain in place, when an employee quietly demonstrates a rare and unexpected level of honesty and integrity, appreciation is in order.

In the end, while ideal traits might not be plentiful in potential hires, just a bud is enough if you know how to develop potential in your employees. It doesn't require a degree in human behavior to understand that some work environments encourage employees to become better and smarter, plus more reliable, trustworthy, and adaptable, while some environments will discourage them from even taking the first step.